I recently had a falling out with someone I admire. I kept wondering what I was doing wrong. Was my ego getting in the way? Could I have done things differently?
I have friends who follow 12 step programs and I’ve learned a lot from them. They say it’s our ego that causes us to feel pain. We feel hurt — or hurt the most — when our ego is invested in a person or a cause.
And when I say cause, I’m not talking about the enlightened sort that saves a group of people or animals from hunger or violence. The cause I mean is the one where we try to get someone, an individual we probably know, to do a certain thing or act a certain way. Those of you who have teenagers will understand: getting adolescents to do chores can seem the same as fighting world hunger on some days. The point is that we are operating from our egos when we take disappointments personally. That is, when something doesn’t go our way and we feel frustrated, that frustration can be experienced as a blow to our ego. And blows to our egos, as everyone knows, are not fun.
So my question today is this: what does true cooperation look like? I’m putting another TED video up because I like what this woman, Margaret Heffernan, has to say. Her thesis is that disagreement is necessary if we are to communicate with others effectively. I agree.
In some of my previous articles, I’ve written about disagreements I’ve had with various practitioners in the Canadian healthcare system. I’ve written about how I struggled to deal effectively with a group of people who used their greater knowledge to silence me. I’ve written about how I struggled to be heard, to be taken seriously and to be a good manager of my mother’s health. That experience – all three years of it – pushed me outside that box called my character and forced me to confront my own weaknesses.
So as I watched my elderly mother suffer, I often thought of something Bette Davis once said. She said that “Old age is not for sissies.” Indeed, neither is coming face to face with your own fears.
What did I fear? I feared I wouldn’t be able to safely guide my mother through a system that didn’t seem to care. I feared I would be disliked for speaking up. I feared my perception of events was skewed – that others had a better grip on reality than I did and that I was making errors, errors that would make me look stupid or in some way be catastrophic for my mother. Overall I feared I wasn’t equal to the task of caring for her.
In the end, however, my perceptions were correct and I discovered I was disliked whether I spoke up or not. The fact that I was clued in was enough to put healthcare workers on alert and treat me warily. My vigilance alone made me the enemy.
So what did being the enemy teach me?
It’s that question that leads me to Heffernan’s talk. She describes an unusual relationship between two very gifted individuals: Alice Stewart, a doctor and medical researcher in England in the 1950s, and George Kneale, a statistician she worked with. Stewart took on the task of proving that pregnant women who were x-rayed were far more likely to give birth to children who would later develop cancer. It was a disturbing theory for medical practitioners at the time because x-ray technology had just been developed and was seen as a life-saving tool. So Stewart had the difficult job of challenging its safety. It took her 25 years to be taken seriously.
What was Kneale’s role in her work? According to Heffernan, Kneale saw his relationship with Stewart in adversarial terms. He said it was his “job to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” And by working toward disconfirming her theory, he gave Stewart the courage to proceed with it. As a statistician, Kneale would have taken raw data and manipulated it in various ways. He would do so to disprove the theory that x-rays were for unsafe for pregnant women. The fact that he could not disprove her theory, of course, was precisely the conclusion Stewart was hoping for.
However, the conclusion in this example provided by Heffernan is not as important as the process that preceded it. Stewart and Kneale would forge a working relationship made of conflict. They could do so because both had the attitude that constructive conflict meant thinking, constructive thinking. Heffernan uses this example to support her belief that to outwit the neurological drive to associate solely with others “just like us” is to free ourselves from conventional ways of being and to enter that higher plane of consciousness, that world, simply put, of better thinking. I believe we can take her ideas a step further. I believe that to engage with others whose beliefs and methodologies challenge ours is the way out of that box I referred to earlier, that box that is our character.
Let me unpack what I’ve just said: Heffernan uses the example of Stewart and Kneale’s working relationship to define a good working relationship, one that by its fusion produced intelligence of the highest sort. She’s using this definition to support her belief that businesses and corporations would benefit from encouraging constructive conflict. She gives another compelling example of an employee at a medical device company who had serious doubts about the safety of a product under development. He struggled to express these doubts only to discover there were other employees who felt the same way. His voice became the voice of leadership in that particular instance because he found the courage to speak up and found support under him. While I applaud the man’s courage, I also know that things don’t always go so well. When some people speak up, they just get fired.
So I’m extending Heffernan’s definition to include character. I think it takes a strong character to enter into an adversarial partnership and its fusion not only produces intelligence: it produces even stronger individuals whose beliefs have been broadened and enriched by an active engagement with difference, what the French call the other. It’s the courage part of Heffernan’s example that is important because it takes courage to disagree and to be disagreeable.
Why did I bring up the ego at the beginning of this article? It’s because it is a paradox that it takes both a strong ego and a willingness to ignore it to have the kind of relationship Stewart and Kneale had. They needed to have faith in their ideas, but courage also to accept they could be wrong. It’s a balancing act not meant for the faint of heart, which is another point Heffernan stresses: most of us can’t, or won’t, do it.
In terms of my own experience, I learned that to deal effectively with medical professionals meant I had to have an ego strong enough to be disagreeable and a willingness to ignore the resentment it caused. I had to ignore the resentment if I wanted to function as an autonomous individual, propelled not by others’ beliefs but by my own.
So if I wanted to be as unconventional as I believe I was meant to be — like Stewart and Kneale — I had to move forward with self-generated force, unfettered by conventions that say laypeople aren’t knowledgeable about medicine and have no role in healthcare. One of the mantras that went through my head while I struggled with uncooperative staff was this: “Yes you are experts in healthcare, but I am an expert in my mother. Why can’t we work together?”
What does cooperation look like? I don’t always get things right and some days just aren’t good ones. My recent disagreement — with the person I mentioned at the beginning of this article — meant that a situation requiring our cooperation didn’t work out. A minor disagreement led to a bigger one and a decision over his fate was taken out of my hands. Things fell apart and now I wish they hadn’t. But I’m a grown-up and I know this is the price of expressing myself and living fully: it’s hard work and I can’t always win.
Postscript: there were no downloadable images of George Kneale available on the net. I would have liked to have included his image here.